Cornrows, Feathers, Face Paint, Oh My: Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation in K-Pop
Mnet’s “Unpretty Rapstar” has certainly raised some heads this season. In particular, one of the contestants, Truedy, has garnered much attention for both her talent and resemblance in musical style to the famous Yoon Mirae (Tasha). However, netizens and fellow “Unpretty Rapstar” contestants alike have also called out the gifted, but perhaps unaware rapper for cultural appropriation: she dons cornrows and other stereotypical elements of Black culture. She also raps about being “The first black people in Korea,” even though she is of Korean descent. The rapper has since then defended herself from such accusations, asserting that she is just “doing what she loves.”
Public suspicion about Truedy’s actions isn’t new in the media. This past summer, American civil rights activist Rachel Dolezal made headlines in the States for successfully passing herself off as a black woman. Dolezal has also dismissed the negative claims against her as all just a big misunderstanding, echoing Truedy. Nonetheless, I feel uneasy about letting Truedy and Dolezal off the hook, as I am too, convinced that they are both guilty of cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation is the use of elements of a culture that is not one’s own. For example, wearing a Native American headdress to a music festival when you aren’t Native American is cultural appropriation. There are plenty of informative sources about the phenomenon and why it’s wrong. But if you haven’t come across such articles online, you might be wondering why it’s so bad. After all, you’re not really hurting anybody by wearing a Native American headdress to a music festival, right? But let’s be clear: cultural appropriation doesn’t usually result from malicious intent. Let me explain by returning briefly to Truedy and “Unpretty Rapstar.”
Now, I don’t read minds, but I doubt that Truedy is deliberately out there to hurt anybody. Her actions, I think, stem from an honest – yet somewhat misguided – appreciation for Black culture. This however, doesn’t excuse the rapper from the fact that she is actually undermining the historical (and contemporary) struggles faced by people of Black culture. Remember how Yoon Mirae initially struggled for affirmation and acceptance in the Korean music industry? And how she daringly and resiliently tried to find her own place in Korean society that ostracized her for her skin, hair, and race?
This helps us think about why Truedy’s actions count as cultural appropriation, and why it’s wrong. Truedy is borrowing elements such as cornrows, tanned skin, and ultimately the persona of being a “Black people,” aspects of Black culture that elicited criticism against people like Yoon Mirae in the past, for her own need for self-expression. More to the point, Truedy reaps the benefits of “looking” or “sounding” Black without being Black. For her, being Black is a costume that she can freely take on and off without constantly being held responsible for the burdens continually faced by the culture from which she borrows. So regardless of her intent, it’s offensive.
While Truedy is a good recent example of cultural appropriation in the Korean entertainment industry, it’s certainly not an isolated occurrence or new development. Let’s recall the Lunar New Year special of MBC’s “Quiz to Change the World” from 2012. I won’t go too much into detail, as there is plenty of information on the internet about the outrage this episode caused, but just to remind you all: the episode featured comedians Lee Kyung Shil and Kim Ji Sun dressed up as Michael (a character based on Michael Jackson) from the Korean animation “Dooly.” There’s obviously not much wrong with dressing up like an animation character, but what is really off-putting about this episode was that the comedians came on-screen in blackface.
What’s so wrong with blackface? Its American origins can be traced back to nineteenth-century minstrel shows, in which white actors smeared themselves with black grease paint to represent themselves as slaves or free Blacks on stage. What’s important to keep in mind is that these were neither lovely nor respectful representations of people of Black culture; the actors portrayed these characters as often inferior to the White characters on stage, thus contributing to the dehumanization and justification of systemized violence and oppression towards Black people.
Of course, blackface in Korea doesn’t have the same kind of politically-charged implication as it does in the United States. Nonetheless, blackface in Korea still functions as a mechanism that perpetually paints stereotypical images of Black culture. There are always power dynamics involved in cultural appropriation, as it is also specifically the act of taking elements from a culture that has faced systematic oppression by the dominant group doing the borrowing. And by oppression, I don’t mean only physical or violent subjugation. It can also include verbal abuse, ridicule, amongst other discrete exploits. So blackface, whether in Korea or in anywhere else, reinforces the idea that Black people are inferior and hence deserving of ridicule.
Cultural appropriation in Korea can also crop up not just online, but also in print. The August 2013 issue of Dazed & Confused featuring singer Lee Hyori is a good example. On the cover, Lee Hyori dons a Native American headdress and tribal-style face paint, complete with a fake nose ring in what is a seemingly creative and clever visual interpretation of “Indian Summer” by the publication.
Unfortunately, the photo shoot entirely misses the point. Headdresses like the one Lee Hyori has on are traditionally reserved for elders in Native American culture who have earned the right to wear one. Feathers and face paint both serve spiritual purposes in Native American cultures. Appropriating such cultural objects and traditions for a photo shoot, completely removed from their original context, diminishes them into exotic fashion elements and stereotypical accessories. This reduces an entire culture with years of history into trendy objects for anyone’s taking. Again, the photo shoot probably did not involve any hateful or oppressive intentions toward Native American culture. Lee Hyori most likely had no say in or any ideas about the photo shoot. Nor do we suspect that she had any malevolent objectives. However, like the case with Truedy, cultural appropriation contributes to the continued dehumanization of the people of that culture, regardless of original intent.
As I said before, this article does not give a comprehensive history about cultural appropriation in Korea, nor does it dig deep into its complexities. Instead, it serves as a brief introduction to cultural appropriation and reveals some of the implications that it ensues: cultural appropriation, no matter how you twist it, is wrong and offensive.
Will this article provoke Korean celebrities into making more responsible decisions about cultural appropriation? Most likely not. Will this article invoke a paradigm shift in the Korean entertainment industry? Not in a million years. I’m definitely not naïve enough to believe that my article will spark some major debate in Korean peninsula about cultural appropriation and the people who do it. Rather, this is a call for viewers and netizens to be more conscientious and socially aware about cultural appropriation and the implications it has to people all over the world. My most idealistic of hopes is that we will be able to show appreciation for other cultures without cultural appropriation, and more through cultural exchange and inspiration (which are both matters deserved of their own articles, honestly).
Speaking of intentions, I also have none in attacking the people included in this article. Personally, I’m a huge fan of some of the names mentioned, and I only wish for their future success.
seehkay is a contributing writer for Soompi. In her free time, she likes to read, discover new music, analyze Korean dramas, and drink coffee every chance she gets.
*The views expressed in this article solely reflect those of the author and do not necessarily represent Soompi as a whole.